Jeff Lebo possesses the largest beer can collection in the world. He’s circled the globe in pursuit of rare beer cans, proving that one man’s trash truly can be another’s treasure. But more than being just an avid collector, Lebo organizes the annual Spring Thaw Brewery Collectibles Show, showcasing a wide range of “breweriana” from like-minded beer collectibles dealers and enthusiasts alike. As the 2015 Spring Thaw gets under way on April 9-11, we’ve dipped into the Fly archive for our March 2012 profile on Lebo, The Can Man.
82,000 Cans of Beer on the Wall*
[Editor’s note: Jeff Lebo’s collection currently numbers 86,000.]
Jeff Lebo is the poster child for the serious compulsive collector.
The Newberrytown, York County, resident has combed through an apartment in Milan, Italy, scoured the shores of communist Cuba and scuba dived at the bottom of a loch in Scotland, all in search of something millions of people crush under foot and dispose of without a second thought – the beer can.
Over the course of five decades, Lebo has amassed 82,000 cans in his collection. Some even date back to the 1930s and were gathered while on trips to all corners of the planet –
from Tahiti and Fiji to Guatemala and Belize and many places in between.
“The average person lives 22,000 days, so that’s nearly four cans of beer for every day of your life,” Lebo says with a laugh.
While not officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records, Lebo owns what is considered to be the largest beer can collection in the world. He says the only thing holding him back from being acknowledged as the world record holder is the time to document each of the cans.
Far from a hoarder but no less dedicated to amassing large quantities of stuff, the 50-year-old Lebo has been collecting beer cans since the mid ’70s. Sometimes it’s one can at a time, other times it’s 30,000 purchased in one shot. His collection isn’t just a smattering of Bud Light cans or the mythical but not-so-rare Billy Beer (although both are part of his collection), but a serious collection of one-of-a-kind memorabilia that’s an exhaustive museum for malted beverages.
Lebo is also the organizer of the Spring Thaw Brewery Collectibles Show – one of the largest beer memorabilia shows on the East Coast.
<<GO: The 2015 Spring Thaw Brewery Collectibles Show takes over the Park Inn in Mechanicsburg from April 9-11. Click here for more info.>>
In the process of putting together his collection, Lebo created a Mecca for beer aficionados dubbed the Brewhouse Mountain Eco-Inn. It’s a two-story, 6,500-square-foot structure filled floor-to-ceiling with cans and brewery memorabilia on his wooded property outside of Harrisburg. The ultimate man cave (or man house, to be more precise) is actually larger than the house he lives in.
Lebo designed the building himself and started constructing it in 1998, mostly with only the aid of his father. It took a year to build and now includes three guest bedrooms, a large music hall, custom wall shelving and other display rooms all lined with beer cans from around the world.
Lebo estimates that there are more than 50,000 cans currently on display in the beer can palace, most of which are organized by region – there’s a German room, an Asian room, an African room and a Scandinavian room, among others.
“I could have built the building twice as large and I’d still be out of space,” Lebo says.
His obsession dates back to 1975 when Lebo was 14 years old. He says beer can collecting was one of the fastest growing hobbies in the U.S. at that time.
Lebo and a friend who also collected started walking along the roads outside Harrisburg, picking up cans in ditches or picking through the dump.
“My friend did the sane thing and quit collecting when he was a kid,” Lebo laughs. “I couldn’t stop.”
With a keen interest in history and geography, Lebo used his can collection as a way to foster his knowledge about different parts of the world, looking for the story of each can.
Canned beer first emerged in the U.S. in 1935. Although Lebo collects all types of cans, his real specialty is early British cone top cans that resemble short beer bottles.
Lebo says he has a real affinity towards Great Britain after attending school at the former Crewe & Alsager College, about an hour south of Liverpool.
“If people knew what things can sell for,
they’d be a lot more careful about what they throw away.”
He’s now made several trips to Great Britain simply to collect cans, including a visit last spring where he sent out press releases ahead of time to local papers in the hopes that people would come forward with rare cans tucked away in dusty attics.
The strangest place he ever found a can came on that same trip during a scuba dive to the bottom of Loch Lomond in Scotland. Lebo says he was inspired years ago when saw a story about a man that found rare cans by scuba diving in lakes in Michigan, so he thought he could do the same in Scotland where some of the rarest beer cans of all are known to exist. Unfortunately, he came away nearly empty-handed on his search.
Lebo’s favorite can in his collection actually comes from Great Britain – the Beaver Lager Beer made by C. Machen & Hudson Brewing in Liverpool from the mid 1950s. The cone top can features a beaver standing on a cliff with a branch in its mouth and is the only one known to exist.
He bought the can in the early days of Ebay and says it is now probably worth more than $8,000. However, if it was an American can in similar condition, Lebo says it would probably be worth around $70,000. (The record price ever paid for a beer can was $80,000 for a can from the Class & Nachod Brewing Co. in Philadelphia at an auction a few years ago.)
“If people knew what things can sell for, they’d be a lot more careful about what they throw away,” Lebo says.
As far as modern beer, Lebo says some of his favorites are local brews, including Tröegs, Appalachian Brewing and Lancaster Brewing.
Despite his obsession, Lebo is a multifaceted individual who has owned his own landscaping business since 1985. He is also the lead singer and songwriter of local Americana band Jefferson Pepper. (He swears he’s never written a song about beer cans.)
Some may wonder what it’s like to be married to the man with the world’s largest beer can collection. Lebo says his wife, Lauri, “would rather chew her own arm off” than spend time looking at beer cans.
In fact, he made sure the concrete footers for the can house were in the ground right before his wedding.
“My wife obviously doesn’t share the passion of the hobby like I do,” Lebo says, “but she’s very patient.”
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE COLLECTION
OLDEST CAN: Krueger Ale
Krueger BrewingCompany of Newark, NJ, was the first brewery to can beer in 1935. Lebo says Krueger didn’t want to risk selling the cans in their own market and have them be a failure, so they tested them in Richmond, VA. Within a few months, their sales quadrupled.
CLOSEST CAN: Jolly Scot Ale
Brewed by the former Robert H. Graupner Brewery on Market Street in Harrisburg, the quart cone top can from the 1940s features a Scottish man with a curved walking stick.
SUPPORTING TROOPS: Fort Pitt Beer
During World War II, at least 40 different breweries across the U.S. brewed beer and placed them in olive drab cans with their own logos to send to troops overseas. Lebo’s can was found on a battlefield in France.
A PIECE OF HISTORY: Zulia Beer
The simple silver can came from a brewery in Venezuela. Lebo’s is one of six cans recovered in the wreckage of an airline crash in Venezuela in the 1970s.
AGED TO PERFECTION: Coronation Brew
H&G Simonds of Reading, UK created a special beer for the Coronation of the Prince of Wales in 1937. Lebo bought the can – which was still full of beer – and cracked it open during a convention. “It was still drinkable,” Lebo says, “but it was pretty nasty.”